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A platter of tapas. Photo: iStockphoto
A platter of tapas. Photo: iStockphoto

Salud to Salamanca

An excerpt from 'Squirrel Pie', Elisabeth Luard's essays from her travels in search of food cultures and their place in the lives of people

The university city of Salamanca is one of the most beautiful in all of Spain. It is also something of a gastronomic place of pilgrimage for the gourmets of Madrid, a hundred miles to the east across the plain, owing to its reputation for the excellence of the pata negra and a wealth of tapa bars and family-run restaurants in the city’s main square, Plaza Mayor.

On a fine evening in autumn a stroll through the city centre, newly polished and pedestrianised, reveals one glorious golden building behind another. The architectural outlines are simple—perfect proportions and soaring height—but a closer look reveals intricate decorative carving in the silversmith style, platero. The carvings are the work of artisans from Seville, capital of the trade with the New World, where the galleons that sailed the Spanish Main unloaded the silver and gold that replenished the coffers of the Catholic kings after the struggle to unseat the caliphs of Al-Andaluz. With the spice route closed to the east, it was no accident that, in the same year that Granada fell, Columbus set sail into the west to search out a new spice route, returning with stories of fabulous wealth in what was named the New Indies.

History dictates the gastronomy of Spain as nowhere else in Europe. It is impossible to disentangle the legacy of the past from everyday life—even now—whether in architecture, art, literature or music, but above all in her culinary habit. Even today, the gastronomy of Spain—both traditional and the modernist cuisine of Catalonia’s Ferran Adrià—owes as much to the cooks of the sybaritic Moors as it does to the wheat fields of La Mancha, the olive groves of Jaen, the fishing grounds of Galicia, the irrigated gardens of Granada, or the mountain-cured hams of Extremadura.

Squirrel Pie (And Other Stories)—Adventures In Food Across The Globe: By Elisabeth Luard, Bloomsbury, 400 pages, Rs449.
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Squirrel Pie (And Other Stories)—Adventures In Food Across The Globe: By Elisabeth Luard, Bloomsbury, 400 pages, Rs449.

No one knows more about the excellence of Iberico pigs as the raw material of salt-cured, wind-dried pata negra ham than José Luis, owner and cellarer-in-chief of the city’s most celebrated ham-curing house. The enterprise exports all over the world under its trade name, Joselito, named five generations back for the founding father.

‘The eldest son is always called José,’ announces José Luis cheerfully as he orders a plateful of his own magnificent ham at a bar in the Plaza Mayor. ‘This can be confusing, so I have to have two names so that when my mother scolded me, everyone knew it wasn’t my father she was shouting at, even if it was his fault that I had stayed out late with him in the tapa bars.’

José Luis is a prosperous businessman in his middle years, charming, impeccably tailored in Savile Row suiting, if a little portly owing to his evident enjoyment of the good things of the table. He is as proud of Salamanca’s status as the oldest university in Spain as he is of the hams which—and I am in no position to argue since I’m invited to sample his wares—have no rival in all the land.

Furthermore, he continues, there’s no possibility I will be allowed to pay my own way, even though our tour of the Plaza Mayor’s many eating places is scheduled to last all evening.

There’s a strong tradition of hospitality throughout the Iberian peninsula—Portugal as well as Spain—and while it’s rare to be invited into someone’s home for a meal, even as a fellow Spaniard, hospitality extends to public eating places, where picking up the bill as host is a matter of orgullo—personal pride—a rule that applies to all non-locals, men as well as women.

José Luis raises his glass in the Spanish equivalent of ‘cheers’—‘salud, amor y pesetas’—a toast to health, love and money, to which I reply with the courteous ‘y tiempo para gastarlos’—and may there be time to enjoy them. While the toast is delivered in well-rounded Madrileño, the precise speech of the educated Spaniard, my own slips easily into Andaluz, a distinctive accent that swallows the ends of the words, causing much merriment among the natives when delivered by a Spanish-speaking foreigner.

The Plaza Mayor, main square, is a handsome quadrangle of arcades, balustraded windows and perfectly proportioned eighteenth-century buildings, many of which are given over to the provision of good things to eat and drink.

Salamanca’s university was founded in 1215—Oxford dates from 1167—and much of the city’s reputation for culinary excellence comes from the need to satisfy the appetites not only of impoverished students but of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

Since Salamanca is herself a pilgrim destination, the tapa bars of the Plaza Mayor are kept busy all year round with the provision of the little mouthfuls which come free with a glass of wine. More substantial dishes are provided for those who can afford a ración—a paid-for dish for sharing between four. Citizens as well as visitors drop in at sundown for refreshment after the day’s work, including a few slivers of pata negra. Even though it’s wildly expensive, even in Spain, there’s a fine appreciation of excellence in the pleasures of the table, and even the poorest will save up for a few slivers of the best at Christmas.

What distinguishes the hams of black-foot Iberico pigs, while no longer as free-range as they once were, is that the beasts are fed at least in part on bellotas, acorns. Serrano hams are prepared with the meat of domesticated breeds fed on grain, so the meat is softer and less dense in flavour and texture. The secret of the flavour lies in the frill of golden fat which must on no account be trimmed from the meat.

So how, I enquire of Don José Luis, do you tell if the ham on the hook in the market is really a pata negra, considering that my own experience tells me that not all Iberico pigs have ebony trotters.

At first sight, you can tell from the slenderness of the haunch, the narrowness of the ankle and the colour of the veil on the exterior fat, replies José Luis. And if you’re in any doubt, the metal tag affixed to the trotter is the best guarantee of origin. Gone are the days, he adds, when it was possible to pass off one for the other.

As for the detail, the process by which the miracle is achieved, all will be revealed when I accompany him and his compañeros of the pig-curing fraternity on a tour of Joselito’s ham-curing cellars the next day. This is an invitation of considerable generosity, since few non-professionals are allowed to witness the inner workings of a naturally secretive industry. How long the hams are left in salt, the length of time allotted before the hams are transferred to the maturing vaults, these are all a matter of skill, tradition and judgement.

Meanwhile, since the ham-curing industry guarantees a ready supply of variety meats to the tapa bars, our evening’s entertainment is a guided tour of the delicious things that can be done with the interior workings of the pig.

José Luis knows everyone in town and our progress round the square is a riot of well-wishers anxious to recommend the speciality of the house to a foreign food writer with such an admirable grasp of the native tongue. This leads to rather too many glasses of the sharp red non-vintage wines of Rioja and an inability to remember what came with it. Nevertheless, my notes on what I can remember of the lengthy tasting menu lists the highlights, each taken in a different eatery, each no more than a mouthful. The stars of the tapa show of the Plaza Mayor, I note, are chicharrones, bubbly chunks of pork-skin fried crisp; trotters and tripe slow-cooked with chickpeas and chilli, callos con garbanzos; morcilla—black pudding—flavoured with cumin and topped with softly cooked rings of onion, morcilla encebollada; frittered brains and sweetbreads—tortillitas de sesos; braised pork tongue, lengua de cerdo estofada; pigs’ ears shredded and crisped in olive oil with garlic, orejas de cerdo al ajillo; tails and snouts slow-simmered with tomato and peppers, chanfaina con tomate.

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